NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

June 29, 2013

Solar project threatens bird habitat

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about our visit to the Westover Air Force Base, one of the state’s largest remaining tracts of open grassland. The grassland birds that this area supports — meadowlarks, bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers, harriers and kestrels — is impressive. The loss of open space throughout our commonwealth has resulted in a serious decline of many of these birds in the state.

We are fortunate to have our own tract of open land, the Common Pasture. This picturesque agricultural landscape is the “Gateway to Newbury/Newburyport,” stretching from Scotland Road in Newbury to Hale Street in Newburyport. It is not the size or the dry grass habitat of Westover, but is one of the largest wet meadow wetlands in the state. Wet meadows are less than one quarter percent of all the acreage in Massachusetts, and most are fragmented. So we are truly blessed to have such a contiguous expanse of such rich habitat.

I have written many times about the special birds of the Common Pasture. Upland sandpipers and Henslow’s sparrows used to nest here before the industrial park took some of the land. But the remaining open meadows still support other grassland sparrows, bobolinks, and meadowlarks. It also is a key stopover for so many migrating birds including ducks, geese, sandpipers and plovers. It hosts the largest count of Wilson’s snipe in Essex County during migration. Swallows feed on flying insects over the fields, as do migrating kestrels. Harriers, other hawks and vultures also hunt the open meadows.

The Common Pastures has supported birds and plant life for centuries. Essex County Greenbelt, the Trust for Public Land, the city of Newburyport and town of Newbury have worked hard over the past decade to preserve this historical agricultural landscape. But now there is a clear and present danger threatening all the work that has been put forth (and money spent) to preserve this special habitat. The Common Pasture is now threatened by a proposed 15-acre, 17,000 panel solar project in the middle of it.

Solar energy is a sensible source of renewable energy alternative to burning fossil fuels. However, proper placement to minimize environmental impact only makes sense. One only needs to drive down Rabbit Road in Salisbury to see what a “solar farm” does to the habitat for birds and other animals.

This proposed project would be built over the wet meadow wetlands and would set a terrible precedent for locating such structures over fragile wetlands habitat. Gone would be the snipe, the ducks, the other shorebirds, hawks and swallows from feeding in that area. Bobolinks, meadowlarks and grassland sparrows certainly wouldn’t nest under the panels. The vegetation would be changed at the very least, and eliminated (a la Salisbury) at the very worst.

The Parker River Clean Water Association is heading the appeal to stop this destruction of this watershed habitat. (The Little River flows through the Common Pasture.) They have the support of Mass Audubon and the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, and have hired two consultants, one locally, one with statewide experience to help with the appeal. To help pay for their services, donations may be made to the Parker River Clean Water Association, Solar Appeal, PO Box 798, Byfield, MA 01922. If you have any questions or can help in any way, please contact Marlene Schroeder, vice president of the association, at 978-462-9062 or marlene.schroeder2@verizon.net The birds thank you!

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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.